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Georges Buchanan, Poetic Paraphrase of the Psalms of David (Psalmorum Davidis paraphrases poetica)
edited, translated and provided with an introduction and commentary by Roger P.H. Green.
Travaux d'Humanisme et Renaissance cdlxxvi. Geneva, Librairie Droz, 2011. 640pp. ISBN 978-2-600-01445-8.  

review in RRR 13.1 (2011), 145-146


The quatercentenary of the death of George Buchanan (1506-1582), Scotland's most famous Humanist, gave impetus to a renewed interest in his work. An exhaustive biographical study was published by Ian McFarlane (Buchanan, London, 1981) followed by a florilegium of his poetry by Philip Ford (George Buchanan, Prince of Poets, Aberdeen, 1982) and a bibliography by John Durkan in 1994. Enthusiasts began to dream of a complete multi-volume critical edition of his works. In the aftermath of the celebrations of the quincentenary of Buchanan’s birth (2006) Roger P.H. Green (emeritus Professor of Humanity, University of Glasgow) was asked to provide a critical edition and new translation of Buchanan’s masterpiece, his poetic paraphrase of the Psalms of David. In his preface – and thus in the English title – Green stresses the fact that these Latin paraphrases are first and foremost a poetic achievement. Their aim is not theological or educational (their use in schools in England, Holland and Germany is of later date) but fits entirely within the Humanist project of revitalizing ancient texts by translating them into Latin. As such, George Buchanan’s Psalmorum Davidis paraphrasis poetica was an instant success in the sixteenth century. In his introduction (pp. 13-97) Roger Green evokes ‘the making of’ the Psalm-poems (1520-1565) and their subsequent complex publication history (1565-1582). He also discusses the blending of biblical and classical sources in Buchanan’s Neo-Latin rendering of the Hebrew original (mediated to Buchanan through scholarly Latin translations). In his poetic language Buchanan combines Jewish and Roman elements, but – according to Green – stays surprisingly faithful to the original, even showing great sensitivity for Hebrew literary forms and idiom. Trying to merge the Western Latin tradition and the Jewish Hebrew tradition, Buchanan resorts to using multifarious poetic forms and literary styles in order to ‘translate’ every single Hebrew Psalm into a satisfactory Latin poem. This results in David praying to the Hebrew God in Horatian odes and other classical metres. Green also deals with the philosophical and spiritual aspects that are inextricably bound up with translating sacrosanct texts. Building on the work of McFarlane, Green only occasionally feels impelled to correct or fine-tune some of the latter’s conclusions. He demystifies persistent romantic ideas about the origin of these poems (e.g. these psalms being expressions of Buchanan’s emotions while imprisoned in Portugal). He also tries to settle the often heated debates about the sources Buchanan used. Sober-mindedly he concludes that Buchanan as a Humanist was aware of and willing to peruse newly available knowledge about the Psalms. Nevertheless, the unlocking of the Hebrew original had not necessarily made the text more simple to translate or understand (these words being almost tautological in this context). So, in the end he had to follow his own preference and intuition in offering a poetic paraphrase of every single Psalm. Remarkable – as in the French Psalm Poems by Clément Marot – is Buchanan’s lack of interest in the christological aspects of the Church’s interpretation of this Jewish book of common prayer. The plain historical sense is what he wanted to transmit in his poetic rendering, leaving the rest to theologians. Perhaps this is also one of the reasons why Theodorus Beza not only praised Buchanan’s Psalms but also kept insisting on ‘improving upon the best’ (p. 30).

After this introduction Green publishes the 150 Latin Psalm poems following the Plantin edition of 1582. Why he opted for this edition and not for the edition of Vautrollier (London, 1580), see pp. 32-3. A new English translation accompanies the original text on the opposite page (pp. 101-519). The translation is literal but readable, helping the reader to understand Buchanan’s often very intricate Latin formulations. Variations (sometimes even emendations) are printed in the accompanying apparatus criticus. In a succinct, but very adequate commentary (pp. 521-626), Green deals with Buchanan’s treatment of the Psalms both in terms of the literary devices he used and the way he tackled difficulties of translation and exegesis. A bibliography and an index complete this important work.

Antwerp, Dick Wursten





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